Prose by Rebecca Robinson
Photographs by Stephen Strom
New to the Bears Ears saga? Read the August 2016 feature by Rebecca Robinson and Stephen Strom on the people and politics behind the monument creation and opposition, as well as their recent Letter to America.
As storm clouds gathered and thunder crackled in the sky above Bluff, Utah, Brant Murray entered the Comb Ridge Bistro as if blown in by the swift summer winds. Tall and tan, with salt-and-pepper stubble and a thick Southern drawl, the North Carolina transplant flashed a winning smile and a warm “How are ya?” before getting down to business.
“Okay, guys,” he said, his eyes and voice taking on a new intensity. “Here’s your June 2017 incorporation update.”
His words (and the wind) transport us back to six months prior, when we conversed in the biting cold of early December 2016. At that time, Murray’s friend and fellow self-described “Bluffoon” Joe Pachak was putting the finishing touches on a pair of 20-foot-tall blue herons made of driftwood destined to be ritualistically burned during the community’s winter solstice celebration.
Murray was intent on convincing us that the tiny community in Utah’s southeastern corner needs to take control of its own destiny. The first step towards autonomy, in Murray’s mind, was incorporating as a town with its own government and regulations that limit sprawl and the impact of large corporations that could forever change the town’s quirky character. Incorporation would also give Bluff increased political clout in San Juan County, where two of the three county commissioners represent towns in the northern part of the county. His desire to “keep Bluff Bluff” is shared by many residents with whom we’ve spoken over the past 18 months.
“I think the majority of people in town are excited about having local people make local decisions for Bluff,” Murray said last June. “What people are looking for is a little self-determination, but not a lot of change for the sake of change.”
His sense of urgency is driven by events that have kept San Juan County in the national spotlight for over a year. The 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument—and all the political conflict that comes with it—is located in Bluff’s backyard. Even the most ardent monument supporters in Bluff have reservations about what lies ahead.
Both long-term residents and newcomers cherish the landscape for its beauty and seclusion, and fear that ever-growing numbers of tourists have the potential to further imperil the natural and cultural wonders in their backyard and turn the area into the type of place they moved to Bluff to escape. Which is precisely why the decision to incorporate is so pivotal—and why this month’s election results represent the beginning of a new chapter for Bluffoons, and for the county itself.
After a long-running and sometimes contentious debate over incorporation that by some accounts stretches back decades, on November 7, 2017, Bluff’s residents voted 89-32 to incorporate, allowing them to begin the process of becoming Utah’s newest town.
“Most of the sponsors [of the incorporation measure] had good feelings going into the election,” Murray told us during a phone conversation last week. “Now, we’re focused on how things will unfold moving forward.”
While the decisive vote is a momentous step toward self-determination, many obstacles lie ahead. Chief among them are the deep divisions between residents in San Juan County who have opposing views on whether Bears Ears National Monument should be preserved in its current state or whether, as Utah’s Congressional delegation has argued and President Trump has supported, the monument should be reduced in acreage or rescinded entirely. Will Bluff’s forward momentum be arrested by politics, or can community leaders push ahead in spite of the tumult?
Next in the Series: We speak with more Bluff residents about incorporation, the Bears Ears debate, and the growth in tourism that can be both an economic boon and a threat to the region’s remote landscape.
Stephen Strom spent 45 years as a research astronomer after receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in astronomy from Harvard. He began photographing in 1978, after studying the history of photography and silver and non-silver photography at the University of Arizona. His work has been exhibited widely throughout the U.S. and is held in several permanent collections, including the Center for Creative Photography and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. His photography complements poems and essays in three books published by the University of Arizona Press–Secrets from the Center of the World, Sonoita Plain, and Tseyi / Deep in the Rock—and Otero Mesa (University of New Mexico Press, 2008). A monograph, Earth Forms, was published in 2009 by Dewi Lewis Publishing.
Header photo of San Juan River from Hole-in-the-Rock Road by Stephen Strom.